Imagine that you are walking on a path through a forest in the Adirondacks and suddenly, you see an opening in the trees ahead. Moving closer, you gaze out on a vast opening covered in a mosaic of leafy shrubs and dotted with spiky conifers. You take a step further and feel the “squish” as your boot sinks into a wet, dense mat of bright green moss. From the top of a nearby snag, you hear the distinctive “quick-three-beers” song of an Olive-sided Flycatcher followed by the complex, jumbled, slightly metallic sound of a Lincoln’s Sparrow. Looking down again, you notice the pale, delicate flowers of a white-fringed orchid. All the sights and sounds are conclusive: you have entered the Adirondack boreal.
The term “boreal” is used to describe cold, wet areas in northern latitudes. For the most part, people think of northern Canada and Eurasia, with vast spruce-fir forests, extensive wetland complexes, and frigid winter conditions. Though much of the Adirondack Park is within the temperate deciduous bioclimatic zone, we can also find low-elevation boreal pockets containing bog rosemary, pod-grass, tamarack and other boreal plants.
Lowland boreal wetlands, including conifer swamps and peatlands like bogs and fens, make up about one-third of all Adirondack wetlands and about 5% (250,000 acres) of the Park. Because they are still largely intact ecologically, provide habitat for rare plant and animal species, are found at the southern edge of the boreal forest, and are separated geographically from similar habitat in Canada, these wetlands represent important conservation targets in the Adirondacks.
Boreal birds depend on these specialized habitats for a variety of resources. For example, Gray Jays create nests in the boughs of conifer trees and use their sticky saliva to create caches of food in the trees. The Olive-sided Flycatcher prefers open woodland habitats and is often found in boreal bogs where dead trees provide excellent perches for “sallying” (flying out to snatch insects in midair). The Palm Warbler is almost completely dependent on peatlands, nesting in shrubby areas on top of Sphagnum moss mats. These species are obligate boreal species, meaning that they breed only where northern plant communities are present.
Some of the other bird species that specialize in boreal forested wetlands include the Yellow-bellied Flycatcher, Rusty Blackbird, Cape May Warbler, Blackpoll Warbler, Three-toed Woodpecker, and Spruce Grouse. Thirteen bird species (the Boreal Baker’s Dozen) represent this iconic lowland wetland community type in the Adirondacks.
Most boreal birds are not often seen or heard, even in ideal habitat. Some, like the Rusty Blackbird, have declined dramatically, while others seem to be chronically rare. Boreal wetlands are highly sensitive to environmental changes that reduce the amount or quality of boreal habitat. A variety of threats include climate change, habitat fragmentation and loss, and changes in the wetland hydrology (water movement and extent). Warmer temperatures in particular may cause boreal plant and animal ranges to shift north; in New York this has already been documented for bird species like the Rusty Blackbird. Increasingly small, isolated habitats support fewer and fewer birds. Mercury bioaccumulation in wetland songbirds is particularly severe. Finally, noise from roads and other human sources may disrupt the birds’ behavior. Though there is currently suitable habitat for boreal birds in Canada, wetlands there are under pressure from energy extraction and other threats.
A key information gap is determining where Adirondack boreal birds nest and feed. A new opportunity is coming for citizens who care about Adirondack wildlife and are interested in searching for the Boreal Baker’s Dozen. In spring 2014, a partnership of agencies and universities is starting a new volunteer monitoring project in the Adirondacks. The project is being funded by a United States Environmental Protection Agency grant administered by the Adirondack Park Agency. The goal is to study birds, plants, and amphibians in Adirondack wetlands and determine how climate change may affect them over time. Citizen scientists will visit boreal wetland sites to identify and measure rare wetland plants, count birds, and perform evening call surveys for amphibians.
For more information on the project and to join the search for Boreal Baker’s Dozen, contact David Patrick at the Center for Adirondack Biodiversity (phone 518-327-6174 or e-mail email@example.com) or Paul Hai at the Adirondack Ecological Center of SUNY College of Environmental Science and Forestry (phone 518-582-4551 x104 or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org).
Photos: Above, A Gray Jay by Simon Pierre Barrette; below, an Adirondack boreal wetland by Samouel Beguin.
This guest essay was written by SUNY – ESF conservation biology graduate student and Plattsburgh native Samouel Beguin along with Stacy McNulty, the Associate Director of the SUNY-ESF Adirondack Ecological Center in Newcomb.